Nearly a quarter century ago when Mitt Romney was seeking to unseat the late Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, the Republican hopeful made a commitment that stood out from other politicians in the GOP: To be a champion of gay rights.
Now that he’s finally been elected to the U.S. Senate 24 years later, some are wondering whether Romney will conveniently forget about that pledge as Democrats say they’ll make a push to advance the Equality Act, legislation that would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include LGBT people. After all, Romney has taken different positions on LGBT rights since 1994 and he’s representing conservative Utah in the U.S. Senate, not progressive Massachusetts.
In a letter dated Oct. 6, 1994 to the Log Cabin Club of Massachusetts, Romney said he was “not unaware” of Kennedy’s commitment to gay rights, but said as a Republican in the U.S. Senate, unlike his opponent, he could “make equality for gays and lesbians a mainstream concern.”
Romney said he discussed with Log Cabin the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill introduced at the time by the late Rep. Gerry Studds of Massachusetts that would have banned anti-gay discrimination in employment. Romney said he’d co-sponsor the legislation and “if possible broaden [it] to include housing and credit.”
That hypothetical bill as described by Romney is essentially three-sevenths of the Equality Act as it was introduced in the last Congress by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). The Equality Act seeks to ban anti-LGBT discrimination not only in employment, housing and credit, but also in public accommodations, jury service, federal programs and education.
The bill has yet to be introduced this year, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has signaled it would be a priority under the new Democratic majority.
Also in the 1994 letter, Romney said he’d support a bill to create a federal panel to find ways to reduce gay and lesbian youth suicide. Although he said “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a “step in the right direction” from the military’s administrative ban on gays in the military, Romney called it “the first of a number of steps that will ultimately lead to gays and lesbians being able to serve openly and honestly in our nation’s military.”
Romney, despite the Republican wave that year against then-President Bill Clinton in 1994, lost to Kennedy. But Romney continued to pursue political office, becoming governor of Massachusetts a decade later and unsuccessfully running to become president of the United States in 2008 and 2012.
Over the years that followed, Romney struck a markedly different tone on LGBT rights than the views he articled in the 1994 letter to Log Cabin — many times offering contradictory positions.
Staying true to his reputation as a flip-flopper, Romney offered different positions on non-discrimination protections for LGBT people. With regard to ENDA, Romney said in 2006 during an interview with the National Review Online the measure would be an “overly broad law that would open a litigation floodgate and unfairly penalize employers at the hands of activist judges.” In 2007, he had yet another position on “Meet the Press” and said ENDA-like laws should be left to the states.
In his previous position in political office, Romney used his power to undermine gay rights instead of seeking to make them a mainstream issue. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney fought tooth-and-nail against the 2003 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court instituting marriage rights for gay couples in the Bay State.
Romney revived an antiquated law in Massachusetts forbidding non-residents from marrying in the state and called for a U.S. constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage nationwide. (Romney has never deviated from his support for a Federal Marriage Amendment.)
During the 2012 election, Romney was held accountable for his 1994 letter to Log Cabin by moderator Chris Wallace during the Dec. 11, 2011 Republican primary debate. Romney clarified he meant in the missive as a Republican he’d have more opportunities than Kennedy to advance gay rights, not be better than Kennedy himself on the issue.
“I do not believe in discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation,” Romney said at the time. “At the same time, I oppose same-sex marriage. Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman.”
Based on the “evolution” of Romney on the issue of gay rights (to borrow a phrase used by Obama on his views on same-sex marriage) support from Republicans on LGBT rights or the Equality Act in the Senate seems unlikely.
Moreover, Romney’s comments in 1994 were based squarely on gay rights and didn’t address the issue of transgender rights. Now the LGBT movement and Democrats insist on transgender inclusion as trans voices have become more prominent, Romney could get out of his 1994 promises under the excuse the issue has changed.
If Romney were to support the Equality Act, he’d be going beyond his state in LGBT non-discrimination protections. In 2015, the state enacted a LGBT non-discrimination law, but — consistent with other protected classes in the state — the law doesn’t cover public accommodations and religious institutions are given broad leeway to engage in anti-LGBT discrimination, even for non-ministerial positions. The Equality Act, in contrast, would make anti-LGBT discrimination in those areas illegal.
Liz Johnson, a Romney spokesperson, had no comment when asked by the Blade if he still holds his 1994 view supporting pro-gay non-discrimination legislation in employment, credit and housing, nor whether he’d now support the Equality Act.
Despite the trend in Romney’s views, LGBT rights groups were optimistic about Romney returning to his 1994 position and backing gay rights now that he’s finally accomplished his 24-year-old bid to win election to the U.S. Senate.
Jerri Ann Henry, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, said her organization hasn’t yet met with Romney, but “so far all indications are he will continue to be supportive” of gay rights as he promised Log Cabin in 1994.
David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, was hopeful Romney would support the Equality Act when asked if the organization has reached out to him about his 1994 comments.
“HRC is working to ensure every member of Congress knows the pressing need for the Equality Act,” Stacy said. “For LGBTQ people, discrimination is a real and persistent problem — yet we face a patchwork of protections across the country. No Americans’ civil rights should be determined by their zip code. We hope that Sen. Romney will do the right thing and heed the voices of the business community, Utahns from all walks of life, and the overwhelming majority of Americans who are calling for this crucially important legislation to be passed into law.”